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It's possible to find complete peace and tranquility in London, if you know where to look. Freelance writer and lifelong London expert Mark Wood takes us on a journey through London's calmer locales from north to south, east to west, and exposes the other side(s) of the metropolis…
With its huge population, reputation as a centre of commerce and sheer geographic spread, Greater London’s status as a major world metropolis is assured. To the insider, however the city feels more like a collection of villages or small towns.
While the well-trodden tourist routes of the city - the bustling West End, Theatreland, and historic castles, palaces, churches and cathedrals - have much to recommend them, it can be surprisingly easy to take time out from the centre and the crowds. Out in the real London there are some oases of calm that are every bit as historically fascinating, culturally compelling and plain good fun as anything the centre has to offer.
North London: Highgate
Situated high above glorious Hampstead Heath (well worth a ramble, especially in the summer months) lies the historic suburb of Highgate. Long beloved by some of the city's wealthiest citizens and celebrities past and present (residents have included Victoria Wood, George Michael and Peter Sellers) Highgate retains a quietly grand and uniquely enigmatic atmosphere while being a mere 20 minute tube ride from the centre of town.
A visit to historic Highgate Cemetery is a must. Listed by English Heritage as being of 'outstanding historical and architectural interest', it's a strong contender for London’s most beautiful and serene open space. Home to all manner of spectacular Gothic mausoleums and gravestones; Karl Marx's tomb and the Egyptian Avenue are especially impressive.
By contrast, fashionable Highgate Village offers a great mix of quirky shops, bars and restaurants. The charming 1940s-inspired High Tea Of Highgate specialises in typically English homemade cakes and scones, washed down with gallons of the national drink. You'll think you're in an Agatha Christie mystery.
Finally, Kenwood House at the northern edge of the Heath is home to Guinness family member Lord Iveagh’s art collection, bequeathed to the nation at his death in 1927. Situated within the elegant 17th Century stately home, Kenwood’s galleries contain works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Reynolds, while its landscaped gardens have sculptures of special significance by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Transport Links: Highgate Cemetery: Archway Tube, Highgate Village: Highgate Tube, Kenwood House: Archway Tube then 210 bus.
South London: Dulwich
A dead cert contender for London's best-kept secret, this affluent, slightly Bohemian area is home to some of the most impressive attractions. Although officially recognised as two quite distinct localities, East and West Dulwich are connected by historic Dulwich Village with its high street of independent shops and by the huge (72 acre) Dulwich Park. The Village is especially good for organic food shopping while the park is a grand place for a picnic.
On the edge of the park, the Dulwich Picture Gallery lays claim to being England's oldest public art gallery and home to a world-renowned permanent collection of European old masters from the Dutch, English, Flemish, Italian and Spanish schools. An architectural marvel in itself, the Sir John Soane-designed building with its skylights and interlinked galleries is commonly held to display its works more sympathetically than its better known central London rivals.
The free and family-friendly Horniman Museum specialises in natural history, musical instruments and world cultures and offers a whole range of arts and crafts activities for children that are a godsend for parents during school holidays.
Fast getting a reputation as the epicentre of good eating in South London, East Dulwich's Lordship Lane is home to Franklin's, a universally lauded bistro that locals claim is London's - if not England's - finest. For foodies, this bustling strip contains a quite staggering selection of great bars, restaurants and gastropubs offering cuisines ranging from Indian to Modern British to Spanish and good old Fish & Chips. In the latter category you could do a lot worse than sample the daily fresh fish on offer at The Sea Cow.
Transport Links: Dulwich Picture Gallery: West Dulwich Rail, Horniman Museum: Forest Hill Rail, Lordship Lane: East Dulwich Rail
East London: Epping Forest
Out east at the far end of the Central Line lies ancient Epping Forest, which has occupied a special place in the hearts of Londoners since at least Roman times. The largest area of open woodland space in Greater London – King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used to deer hunt here – Epping is where Londoners go to nature watch, breathe in the fresh air and simply get lost among great oaks and beeches, ponds, streams and open heath.
For the uninitiated, it's best to head first to the Visitor Centre at High Beach for maps, guides and tourist information. There are several guided walks that take place at weekends all year round and frequently begin and end at one of the Forest’s many fine pubs. Most of these offer good lunches and a fine selection of English ales.
The forest's finest treat is Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge– a real, restored Tudor lodge with fine views, utterly steeped in history. It even offers dressing up activities for children.
For the especially active, Epping plays host to a vast number and variety of sporting activities from horse riding to cycling, orienteering to golf and running to motorcycling. And if a day’s not enough overnight camping facilities are available.
Transport Links: Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Theydon Bois and Epping tube stations all provide convenient access to the forest. Chingford Rail station is the nearest to the Hunting Lodge and can be reached from Liverpool St.
West London: Chiswick / Strand-On-The Green
A distinct and typically English village until the 20th Century, parts of historic Chiswick retain a sedate charm not shared by more boisterous neighbours like Acton and Hammersmith. Its riverside location and mixture of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian architecture have endeared it to a generation of location managers for TV and film period dramas. In fact, it’s entirely possible you’ve already encountered Chiswick on celluloid.
Sadly, the wonderful Hogarth's House is currently closed for refurbishment, but move west along Chiswick’s High Road of shops and eateries and you'll find Strand-On-The Green. Located by Kew on the north bank of the River Thames this especially picturesque area of 18th Century houses and cottages dates back to the time before Nelson. If the weather’s with you, take a nature walk along the riverside footpath – you won’t believe you’re so close to the city centre - and choose from the many fantastic old pubs and restaurants along the way. The Bulls Head, which has been serving refreshments in the area since 1722 is an especially great place to stop and rest.
Transport Links: Chiswick Park. Strand-On-The-Green: Kew Bridge Rail Thanks to Flickr photographers Maxwell Hamilton, Matt From London, Lenny Montana, tpholland, Laura Nolte and RC_Fotos, and to psd for the header image of the swimming pond at Hampstead Heath.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.